Insight

In Search of the Zeitgeist

Why are some brands cool and why do some fall short of the mark?

Think of the last bottle of booze you bought. Why did you buy it?

When it comes to buying spirits, there are always those who will talk about buying into a certain producer, particular flavours or being captivated by a specific process. I am one of those and spend most of my life trying to help people make more informed decisions by sharing more about what something tastes like, who makes it, how and where they are from. 

I live by that too - I only buy something when I know the answers to those questions.

This is not true for the majority of drinkers. Most will base their purchasing decisions predominantly on price and availability. However, now that the internet has made everything more available and price points are more competitive than ever, the twin “hard power” reasons for one brand succeeding over another have greatly diminished. 

Most commentators and enthusiasts will try to put people, place and process as the next critical factor to influence a decision. Our role is to try make them conscious triggers by up-weighting their value. I make no apologies for this and genuinely believe that these other “soft power” factors are playing an ever-bigger role than ever before. 

That said, in all the calls to dig deeper into something, it’s important to not forget the unspoken truth that rules most buying habits. Whether or not something is cool (or at least, cooler than the other thing they were considering) looms heavily in our subconscious and for those honest enough to acknowledge it, it’s a cognisant factor too. 

Drinkers don’t have an existential crisis when in the supermarket about who made it or how. They don’t stop to do research online, scrolling through a review to get the inside track with a basket in hand and the children running rampant in the biscuit aisle. Did it look cool? Have they seen it before and thought it sounded cool? After price and availability (in this case literally being in front of someone at a moment when they are actively shopping) being cool is the biggest third factor influencing why some brands are taken home over others. It’s that simple.

Take it from experience – a shoddy looking bottle made by a good producer is harder to sell than a great looking one with a hollow back story. Forget the act of converting a sale once someone has expressed an interest whether you like it or not - there’s a natural gravity that draws people into picking it up in the first place. Even if I do pay particular attention to the who, how where’re and what of it all, I’m also hugely swayed by if something is cool or not.

So which brands have got the ‘cool factor’ and how are they going about showing that? 

Celebrity

It would be all too easy to point to the dozens of Tequila and Mezcal brands owned by celebrities but to be frank, being famous isn’t the same as being cool and when it comes to their brands, being famous doesn’t make their spirits cool by proxy. 

Some have more natural swagger like the Breaking Bad duo, where some of that cultural caché is imbued into their brand Dos Hombres. Ryan Reynolds also manages to project his personality into Aviation Gin with style, so too does the Rock in his Tremana Tequila.

Take a look at the Beckham backed Haig Club however and then try tell me that’s not the most cheugy thing out there. If anything, while the celebrity endorsement or ownership affords a brand a huge platform to project awareness about its existence, the overt marketing and old school advertising tropes can also remove cool currency too.

In a world where social is more relevant to most than huge billboards, a brand that’s managing to navigate the murky waters of endorsements and seemingly genuine collabs in this modern era is Ashland. Their shared ownership scheme is a clever way to tap into just enough ‘celebrity’ to gain exposure but not too much to make it hollow. 

Packaging

Don’t judge a book by its cover? Come off it - of course you do and the same is true with spirits. Multinationals aside, take the top 100 selling craft brands and look at how many are in bespoke glass. There’s a reason for that - the bottle and the label design matters.

Embossing and textural glass has been prevalent in the gin category, while Whisky has tended to focus on the boxes. Whatever spirit you are into, there are some seriously cool looking offerings out there. 

Desirability aside, for those who care to actively scan Spirit bottles with a critical eye, there is some cunning use of subliminal messaging, weighting, information hierarchy and positioning that make a profound effect to how it’s received at first glance, as well as how the messages are absorbed by the viewer.

Identity

Conveying an identity involves more than what’s on the label or the shape of the bottle. A brand’s digital footprint extends from owned websites to social media, alongside a world of images and clips intended for others to use (or indeed made by others once they get hold of a bottle). 

The omnipresent nature of social media means that most drinkers will come across a brand there long before ever seeing a bottle, and more frequently in 2021, long before making the decision to add to basket on an online store. 

Projecting a lifestyle and being adopted by specific groups of drinkers who share the same philosophies is a key part of building perception. When it comes to being cool, it’s also one of the hardest things to get right as it’s not about being a luxury brand, or an edgy one, or having the right endorsements. 

Take Salcombe Distilling’s almost perfect social pages and impeccably manicured aesthetic. It screams luxury and detail-oriented brand work, but is it cool? Compare this to the sometimes polished, sometimes raw nature of Stranger & Sons (a brand that almost defines the word zeitgeist at the moment) and you can see that being cool comes from another place than just aesthetic alone.

El Madre Mezcal showcase the art of having a coherent vision and delivering it consistently. They have the ability to convey the romance of Artisanal production and Mexican art, the communities involved and the shared stories and ways they manifest themselves. 


Attitude

When it comes to cool, attitude matters. Captions, slogans, phrasing and words can have a profound impact on positioning a brand and helping it engage an audience. 

Some brands take the anti-hero approach as their way of being edgy, others adopt a more trailblazing storyline. Meanwhile, there are many who opt for the more tried and tested associative ways of projecting identity (through music or film), some tap into sub-cultures. 

Big, small or somewhere in-between, what binds them all is the way that irrespective of what it is, they all try and build a story that’s bigger than just their brand. One that others can associate with and hopefully see a part of themselves reflected in it. 

There’s also a certain element of non-conformity in almost all of them too. Never Never Distilling embody this in that they are not an anti-hero, nor that rebellious, but they are non-conformist and their platform is one of bold decisions and fearlessness. 

There are many ways that brands capture the zeitgeist, but just by looking at this top-line round up of factors that play into being cool, it’s easy to see why so few retain it for long. 

It’s fleeting, it’s ever evolving. If you return to these words in two years’ time, the sentiment behind them may still hold true but I guarantee that the examples used will be at best awkward, at worst undermine the points made. 

That’s the point about cool – it’s impossible to sustain and that’s what makes it so exciting. Moreover, consciously or not, it’s why it influences us so much when we look at bottles and decide what to buy next.

Spirits Kiosk
Never Never Triple Juniper Gin
Never Never Triple Juniper Gin
50cl43%AU
£25.94
No.3 London Dry Gin
No.3 London Dry Gin
70cl46%GB
£34.44
Eminente Reserva Rum
Eminente Reserva Rum
70cl41.3%GB
£44.44

By Olivier Ward

5 May 2021